Participation and Community by Nancy Davies

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Participation and Community
by Nancy Davies
February 2, 2005
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Today, instead of fretting over the differences between “community”, “democracy” and “participation”, which have been on my mind for a while, I started to work on an article for a local Oaxaca paper. I have a sweet young friend named Adriana who became another statistic in the escalating rate of birth by caesarian section –something like 80% around here, which is totally outrageous. My Oaxaqueña friend, who is as smart as we all are but without a high school education, received no pre-natal information, and more in fatigue than in wisdom succumbed to the bullying of her obstetrician. (This was after Adriana went for a second opinion from a disinterested ultrasound technician, who told her there was no danger from “a cord wrapped about the baby’s neck”.) In response, her ob-gyn said to her, “If your baby dies, it’s not my fault.”
Adriana went for the useless second opinion because I and other American women jostled her to do it. And then I felt guilty because once again I was putting my spoon into somebody else’s pot. Adriana, who submitted to the caesarian and received in exchange a baby weighing 2.5 kilos, and no information about breast feeding, assured me I was not meddling. Indeed, it seems like this splinter of a baby belongs to the entire group of women who use the library where Adriana works. In American terms, a women’s support system sprang up around her.
To compound my guilty meddling, I spoke with a pediatrician who is a good friend and also an English student of mine. He probably – since he’s now my doctor (yes, my doctor is a pediatrician, but that’s another story) – thought I would have a heart attack from my rage because by now Adriana was feeding her infant bottled formula. So he picked up his tiny cell phone and called Adriana and invited her to come see him free of charge with the baby, and she did.
Then I asked Adriana if she would like to co-author with me this newspaper article. And she accepted.
So, dear readers, is this an exercise in meddling, or in community, or in participation?
More to the point: is this the best I can do?
Example number two: let me share with you a letter I received from one of my daughters who has married a European and chosen to live in France.
January 16, 2005
As an American in Europe, I am often struck by how land is used so differently here than it is in the U.S. I noticed it in Spain - small towns with high rise apartment buildings. I noticed it from the air when I flew to Germany - a dense pattern of towns radiating farm roads to cultivated fields. And so I see it here in rural France - clusters of houses with shared walls where there is plenty of land all around. Contrast this with rural America - the lone farmhouse in vast field. In Europe, at least in the parts I’ve seen, people are comfortable living close together. Of course there are historical reasons for this, such as the need for safety from medieval marauders; and practical reasons for retaining this arrangement, such as the preservation of farmland. But for me this remains one of those foreign things, here in this foreign land. As an American, I expect people to want a little more space between themselves and the neighbors when they can get it. But I’m comfortable with shared walls too.
I mention this recurring observation because I’m still thinking about drainage and septic systems and neighbors. And the need to cooperate when we share walls and roofs. Monsieur Le Belge has taken care to restore our drainage across his property. The perpetual bog at the corner of our courtyard is drying up. … And where we have a common roof, we agree to install a gutter that extends its whole length. The water from his part of the roof can run down our drainpipes and back across his lawn to the river.…
We prepare to move on to the next big thing. With a new confidence that comes of the recently discovered Secret of the Rental Backhoe and the Neighbor who Loves to Drive it, we prepare to cut down the last of the three giant fir trees that hog the back yard. Monsieur le Belge can pop out that stump like a cork…we fire up the chainsaw for an assault on the tree. Monsieur le Belge is out of his house in a jiffy, asking whether we couldn’t use his help. As I step out onto the road to greet him, we meet Odette and Madame Reunion taking their daily stroll past our house. Everyone greets and shakes hands, and I tell them, say goodbye to that last fir! They do. Le Belge takes charge, and in minutes, the tree is down. Just then, Giselle and Michel wander into the yard. Everyone greets and shakes hands. Oh, a little party! And while we’re at it, let’s cut these trees way back. Last summer they were full of hornets.
I visit with Michel and Giselle as Kurt and Le Belge continue sawing stuff. Giselle refers to Monsieur le Belge as notre Belge. Which leads me to believe that she refers to us as nos Amercains. And you know how I referred to her. But right now, I don’t care because, I feel, we may all be community.
What is community, anyway? Gabriel Magee on Fri Jan 14th, 2005 responded to my last essay [1] by asking,

“Why is it that North Americans experience so little participation? . . . The only conclusion, to me, is that N. Americans experience so little participation not because they are uncaring, but because it benefits certain sectors to keep things that way.  The question then becomes, how do we change that? And, what system can be used in its place?

Experiences like yours show that participation, what I would call direct democracy, is possible and beneficial.  The question is, how do we apply that to such a large population like the US?  
Magee put the question very well. I can see how one person can ride on the back of a single issue, like caesarian births, to a national project. It happens all the time. But that’s not going to change the system. Projects of whatever size and subject do not address the problem if it is embedded in our culture, and fostered by huge capitalist forces whose modus operandi is divide and sell. Americans still hold onto the myths of rugged individualism, the sanctity of private property, and the worthiness of proud self-reliance. (And speaking of self reliance, when Emerson wrote his famous essay he wasn’t referring to life in a farmhouse with no neighbor closer than five miles. He was referring to thinking outside the box – not accepting the handed down wisdom of our ancestors. Thought self-reliance.)
When it comes to community, we Americans are wimps. We believe that every baby is born with individual human rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Rights do not include medical care, education or housing, as they do in other countries like Mexico, at least in their Constitution, if not totally enabled.)
On the other hand, we of the USA are not born with any community obligation. If we voluntarily take on some community or charitable service later on in life we are second only to the saints. A boy scout who collects money for tsunami relief gets his photo on the front page. Worse, compulsory community service is used as punishment for committing a crime.
In a Zapatista community, or a Oaxaca community of usos y costumbres, each child is born with obligations to the community. Each child goes through life with serial obligations to perform certain assigned tasks, with no financial reward. In Zapatista communities “leadership” is also a task, and assigned for the shortest practicable term to avoid establishing a situation where bribery and corruption might be possible.
But what about rights? Oh, we love rights! And rightly so! For example, in Zapatista communities twenty years ago a girl was obliged to marry whomever her parents assigned her to. Her husband owned her, with the implication that beating was permissible. Private property was, and still is, severely limited; private enterprise is not condoned. There is no assignment to higher education without the consent and financial support of the community; nor special jobs like teacher or nurse, without the community deciding it should be so.
However, the community takes responsibility for the welfare of its members.
So I think if I write an article about women’s rights, and my daughter celebrates neighborliness, we are several light years away from understanding collective community.
There has been some discussion of the idea that NGOs are re-colonizing the less “advanced” cultures through the introduction of “human rights”. That is, they are promoting private property as a human right, so that campesinos will sell their land, get rich, and get poorer. They are promoting the idea that every service must be rewarded with cash payment. (Slavery? Oh, no!) They are promoting political parties, so that everyone can have a secret vote, and thereby split the community which, under usos y costumbres, ideally is obliged to spend time in public discourse until near-unanimity is achieved.
Human Rights and Individualism are not synonymous. Human Rights and Private Property are not synonymous. A right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers is perhaps a human right? No, it’s a political right under our system. Freedom from torture at the hand of the government is perhaps a human right? I would think so, but no government agrees. What degree of Individualism – private property, mobility in the housing market, mobility in the social structure, freedom to privately pursue one’s own inclinations – genuinely exists? Or are those “freedoms” only possible for the wealthy? And in any case, is that what we should strive for? What about cooperation and community?
Private Property, Human Rights, Individualism and Democracy are not synonyms. The first is an economic system. The second is a philosophical derivative. The third is based on the religious conviction that each individual matters to one’s particular deity, and the fourth is an as yet unperfected political system. Communality, or communalism, or whatever name eventually sticks to the system of cooperative living, is a life-style and closely woven cultural artifact having something to say about the interactions of human beings and their locale.
In the USA we all have the right to be poor, and we all have the right to be alone.
In a Mexican/Zapatista community, we all have the right to be poor. But nobody has the right to be alone.
American talk about “community” is usually misleading, because the true definition –obligation by virtue of birth – is missing. When the smallest act of outreach occurs we self-congratulate, because we are after all nice people, and we choose to behave in a neighborly way, and we are kind-hearted and sincerely wish the world to be a better place. Most of us are as good as we know how to be.
But we have not tried to examine the validity of the rights our culture has handed us, the consequences of individualism, the failures of most of us to assume obligations (especially when the rights of others are withdrawn), and we have not explored how profoundly other cultures depend on community. Once, several years ago when we visited a Zapatista community in rebellion, I asked a twenty-year old widow with two children what hopes she had for her son’s future. And she replied, that he would grow up to die for the cause like his father. Think about that.


[1] The prior essay, “From Inclusion to Participation: Elections and Protests, Part III”, is at

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Last update of this page: March 3, 2005

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